Paul Ehrlich, author of the iconic 1968 book The Population Bomb, now refers to himself as a “mobster.” Okay, so the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere — the MAHB — is not exactly an organized crime group, but Ehrlich is still raising some ethical eyebrows. After warning of impending global catastrophe for over 40 years, he and his MAHB are bringing together humanists, social scientists, ecologists, and economists to figure out how we might convince people to quickly change course.
The trouble, Ehrlich says, is in our genes. One hundred thousand years ago, when our greatest obstacles were wild animals, food foraging, and “ducking rocks thrown at our heads,” it wasn’t necessary to grapple with huge, hard-to-discern disasters like biodiversity loss or climate change. Alas, our brains aren’t yet up to speed with these fast times. As Ehrlich says, we’ve got “stone age brains with space age technology.”
What’s to be done? Having written over 40 books, Ehrlich posits that “people don’t want to hear about solutions — those books don’t sell.” And he’s long since given up on any attempt to counter “genuine idiots” or “the mathematically challenged.” Ultimately, though, he’s a people person — he thinks that, with the right incentives, we can be retrained.
This stalwart of the environmental movement has received a great deal of criticism for his doomsday rhetoric, and, by his own admission, the environmental movement has “utterly failed.” But, in spite of all the perceived failures, he’s still searching for a way to convince our planet of short-term thinkers that large-scale environmental change is worth addressing quickly and globally.
Maybe adding the title “MAHB-ster” will help him convey a sense of urgency without scaring people away from the problems that lie ahead.
I caught up with Ehrlich recently to talk about his work, as well as the nature of environmental rhetoric, the pitfalls of the Republican Party, and the elusive aura of the 1960s.
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This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.
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